What’s in a Hoodie?

March 26, 2012

When I was in the 5th grade, I lobbied my mom for two peer-pressure-induced things:

  • a pair of Levis blue jeans
  • to be able to watch the new television show, “Happy Days”

Both took a lot of persuasion, begging, groveling, bemoaning, and probably some crying, but eventually I made a strong enough argument (or else drove my mother to the breaking point) to succeed. I was told that I could watch “Happy Days” with my parents (evidently they felt the need to define things like “hickey” for me) and while I could not get a pair of blue jeans per se, I was allowed to pick out a pair of light blue Levis corduroys that I wore with pride all the way through, I think, the 8th grade. All the way until they wore through in the seat and were no longer fit even for cut-offs.

I was thinking about those Levis this morning as I walked my dog through the park wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Being a middle-aged white woman, I imagine I’m not very threatening in the latest demonized wardrobe. Sadly for Trayvon Martin, this rule – this stereotype – didn’t apply to him. He was a young black man in a hoodie and as such was a threat to the fearful, trigger-happy George Zimmerman. Trayvon is dead due to his hoodie. I was only warm. Bill Belichick is… well, he’s a slob, but that’s another story.

Or is it? Why did it take such persuading on my part to convince my mom to let me wear those Levis all those years ago? Why was she worried about “Happy Days”? Strangely enough, there was a connection. Levis, to her, represented something that young girls didn’t need to project, i.e. they didn’t need to dress like boys. You had to buy Levis in the boys department at that time. They didn’t make jeans for girls yet. You had to go to the boys department and pick out your size by waist and inseam, like boys and men do, not in non-measurable sizes like girls and women. They were pants for boys, not girls.

They were also jeans and jeans represented a level of dress that was unacceptable for school. Mind you, I didn’t go to a Catholic school or a boarding school or any type of private school with a dress code. I went to the public school in the neighboring county. I went to school with kids from farms and suburbs; low- to middle-class, all of us. But my mom taught at the same school and she felt strongly that there should be a difference between what a person wears when s/he is going to school, compared to going in the backyard to play. School was time in public and as such, you needed to look presentable. She defined this as something better than jeans.

Over time, of course, I wore more jeans. I even wore blue jeans before I finished high school. Still, the lesson of how I was to look in public stuck with me. It sticks to this day. I iron my clothes in the morning, I rarely wear jeans to work (and only this year started doing so on Fridays), I won’t go anywhere other than the gym or the dog walk in sweatpants. Like my mom, I believe very much in the importance of the difference between public and private, and I believe in maintaining that differentiation as best I can.

But no doubt, I am in the minority.

I concede that one can make a strong argument that appearance is overrated (ironically, since we are a culture obsessed with fashion and looks). In an ideal world, we would see beyond the clothes one wears or the car one drives. In an ideal world, we would look beyond the color of a person’s skin, their sex or gender, their socioeconomic status. In an ideal world we would look beyond all of these things to see only the person. In an ideal world, George Zimmerman would have seen a young man named Trayvon Martin. That’s all. He would have drawn no conclusions, nor made any assumptions about Trayvon based upon his jeans and his hoodie and his hands tucked in his waistband. But surely we all know how very far from any ideal world that we are today.

That said, I wonder where our individual responsibility lies in terms of the messages we send to people by the way we present ourselves to the world. I was riding the light rail to the airport in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. I was sitting next to an African-American woman about my age. A young man, who looks a lot like the pictures of Trayvon I’ve seen on the news, got on the train at one of the stops and for the next 15 minutes or so, stood by the door alternating scrolling on his iPod with pulling up his pants. This kid was not threatening to me in any way. He was a kid in his jeans and his hoodie and a jacket, riding to wherever he needed to be that morning. When his stop arrived, he got off and the woman next to me said under her breath, “I’m so glad I don’t have any boys.” I shared that I was thinking the exact same thing and we laughed about the ridiculous fashion statement one’s pants falling off one’s ass makes.

We laughed. George Zimmerman fired a gun. Thus I return to my argument that when we live in a world where people will in fact shoot you because of the clothes you chose to wear that day, is it not maybe time to think a bit about the choices we’re making? I listened with interest at Tom Ashbrook’s March 20th episode of “On Point” where his guests, Mychal Denzel Smith and James McBride, along with several callers to the show, talked about some of the things they were taught as youngsters, as young black men, to help them survive in a world that hated them for no reason beyond the color of their skin. The lessons in no way serve to condone the hatefulness. They aren’t meant to encroach upon anyone’s civil liberties and/or free will to wear whatever the hell they choose to wear in public. No, they are lessons in survival.

They were taught not to run away from a possibly harmful scene for fear of looking like a guilty black man (a lesson that Trayvon evidently had heard, for when his friend on the phone told him to run, he refused). They were taught not to cross the tracks. They were taught to be home when it got dark. Are these all lessons and/or rules that imply one is submissive to an established order? Maybe. But more, they are lessons that kept those young men alive.

My mother said, “Don’t come crying to me if someone mistakes you for a boy when you’re dressed like one.” It’s a point well taken. And I know it’s a L-O-N-G way from being mistaken for the wrong sex to being shot on someone’s front lawn, but it’s still the same world. It’s still a world where people make assumptions, where people hold wrong ideas, where people stereotype, and where people are inundated with messages to fear and hate anyone who looks or talks or acts different from us. We hear it from political candidates, television and radio talk shows, movies, books, and even the “red alert” terrorist rating scale brought to us complements of our Department of Homeland Security. We simply cannot escape the message, the idea, that we are threatened. Constantly. We live in a heightened state of fear because we’re taught that fear will keep us safe. The logic escapes me, but it is there all the same.

So I’d like to suggest that until we find ourselves in a better place, a better world, that maybe we look again to some of the rules we let go awhile ago. Maybe we can start to think again about how we look to others, how we present ourselves in the world. Maybe moms and dads, aunts and uncles, friends and family, athletes and superstars – adults – can model again for our young people some behaviors that will keep them safe; behaviors like, if you’re not a gangster, don’t dress like one. If you want people to take you seriously, stop looking like a clown. If you want the respect of your teachers or your boss, show up dressed in such a way that says, “I’m here to listen and pay attention.” Sweatshirts and baggy gym shorts and pants falling of your hips don’t say that. Neither do tight blouses that show off your lingerie or jeans low and tight with “princess” written across the ass. What else does this say besides, “Look at my ass!”? Look at my ass, my breasts, my crotch. That’s what it says.

We can argue until the cows come home that it shouldn’t be this way. We can say with every good, civil libertarian, high-browed and educated liberal mindedness that such thinking is just wrong. We SHOULD be seen for who we are, not what we wear. And to that I will answer, “Yes, we should.” But we are not. And Trayvon is dead, not entirely, but in part, because he looked like a young man who might cause trouble. He fit a profile. And if I was his mom, as much as it’s against my core beliefs to tell him to dress differently, I’d have rather done that than attend his funeral.


If a door closes in the forest, does anybody hear?

March 3, 2012

ImageI joke a lot about my life in the cubicle. I joke so that I don’t cry. Cubicle life is harmful. Literally. If I were to spend more time on this post, I’d document that statement with numerous references. Lacking such, if one chooses to do a brief search of the Web on the topic of developing and nurturing creative environments, being more efficient at work, the troubles with 24-hour connection to work, to computers, to people… well, you’d quickly find credible sources to back up my statement that spending 8+ hours each day in a  3-walled space sucks away your life, your soul, your entire being. Bit by bit.

But this aside, in my joking about the cube earlier this week, I had an “Ah Hah!” moment (actually it was more like a “Holy smokes!” moment) when I realized that in my life I do not have a single door. Not one. I have no door on my office at work and while there are doors on my bedroom, bathroom, other rooms in my home, like my office space, my home is a space that I share with others. I share my workplace with my colleagues and I share my home with my partner and our pets. Shared spaces.

I do have space in my home that’s deemed “mine” – a room with my books, drafting table, desk, and other assorted tools for creativity, and recently Lynn and I began rearranging the guest bedroom so that it can be a place for the sewing machine, computer, musical instruments and such. We have a wonderful home, overflowing with good space, literally and metaphorically. Still, within all of that good space, there is no space that is mine in the sense that I can go there, close the door behind me, and be alone with myself.

The same holds true at work. If I really need to have focused thought – to read an article or write a report or even just think thoughtfully about a problem or project – I have to leave my cubicle and find a quiet place, perhaps one of the study carrels upstairs, to do so. And even then, there is no door. These are not my spaces, but simply quiet public spaces.

Is this such a bad thing, this not having a room of one’s own? Virginia Woolf made the saying popular in her collection of writings and lectures, A Room of One’s Own:

“Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”
But as I had my realization this past week, I challenged Ms. Woolf by saying, “People need a room of one’s own… with a door.” After all, isn’t it the door that makes the room? The door is what gives the privacy. It’s the door that gives the permission for the space to really become one’s own. It closes out the rest of the world so that we’re able to make the space our’s alone and thus, allow us to be ourselves alone. And fully. In the sense of fullness in solitude.
I’m grateful for all of the spaces in my life that are safe and conducive to good thought and creativity. It is most true that I loathe my cubicle, but I am thankful for the bulletin board and the whiteboard and the desk; all things that allow me to make the open space something of my own. Still, it is not good for work. There’s no denying that. 
And I’m grateful for my car and for occasional trips that last longer than 10 minutes; trips that allow me to close the door on the world and be alone. It’s not the same as a room, but it’s close. I told someone recently that I do not talk on my phone in my car. This is not because it’s unsafe, nor because I rarely talk to anyone on the phone, anywhere. But I followed up by saying, “My car is my space. It is my time alone. If I find the chance to be alone in my car, I don’t want any intrusions.”
A room of one’s own with a door. This is what I look for. I think it’s what we could al use. And I don’t think we’ve a dog’s chance of writing any poetry – or being truly healthy – without one.

She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

February 8, 2012

The Professional Retention and Recruitment Committee of the Medical Library Association (my professional association) posted on MLA’s “Linked In” site the questions: Do you think you make a difference at your organization? Do you still feel valuable as a librarian? I wrote a response there, but wanted to put it here on my blog, too. As I state, it’s a bigger question; one that can be directed to a lot of other professions and institutions than librarians and libraries.


This is an awfully timely discussion as I just went to a workshop on Monday on embedded, personal and liaison librarians. The audience consisted of librarians from many types and sizes of institutions; state and private colleges, junior colleges, companies, medical schools. It was repeated by practically every soul there (perhaps indicative of the theme of the program) that neither students nor faculty really know what the library and librarians can do for them. Working in an academic health sciences library, I can include clinicians and staff of the hospital to that list, too. It was hardly a new cry, “Nobody knows our value!” but it got me to thinking – and especially, questioning – what’s behind this phenomenon.

It covers the gamut, from young students straight out of high school to those working on a PhD. It applies to all faculty, whether they finished their degree and began teaching 3 years ago or 30. It crosses every discipline, from medicine to history. Faculty do not refer their students to the library (read, they don’t know what we can do) and students don’t come to the library (read, they don’t know what we can do).

So… I started to think about this in a historical context. When the heck did the shift happen? When did people stop knowing what’s available through their library? If you have faculty who don’t know this, 30 years into their profession, have they always not known? Have they never taught their students the value of the library? If that’s the case, how have we gotten on this long? If they did once teach them the value of the library, when did they stop? And why? When you think that we’ve been promoting information literacy in schools (K-12 + college) since the 70s, as that term, and library instruction, as that term, since the late 1800s, when did it get lost? OR what have we been doing to miss the mark in this charge we’ve been given (I’m willing to take some of the credit/blame as a profession)?

Today’s students, doctors, nurses, patients, we all say, do a lousy job at effectively finding and accessing the best quality information. They do not know how to do this. Why not? If it is our mission, as a profession, to teach them how, where and why have we failed?

These are the questions that I’ve been asking myself since Monday. Truthfully, before Monday, but they’ve been at the forefront of my thinking and it’s interesting to see the discussion here, too. Maybe I’m not the only one thinking it.

SO… I did a very quick look through the literature for the history of academic libraries and found a nice review of the literature published in “Library Philosophy and Practice” in 2005. I highlighted a bunch of interesting thoughts on my copy. I had a career before libraries that was based on “big thinking” like this – the meaning of life and such – so this type of questioning is always appealing. But digression aside, here are a few pieces that I think are most relevant to the topic and discussion and questions:

  • “Their (academic libraries, though I think we can include medical libraries, too) history is one of evolution and change that parallels the history of their parent institutions.”
  • There exists “a historic desire by librarians to be accepted equally by faculty” (insert clinicians, med students, etc.), but “the acceptance of librarians by the community has not improved very much” over time.
  • And finally, “libraries tend to reflect rather than create intellectual trends.”

No doubt, there are people who have and always will value libraries and librarians. They love us and the work we do, but more and more, I’m becoming convinced that this is much more a reflection of those individuals rather than the library and/or librarians. These people tend to be people who are willing to ask for help. They are often both intelligent and creative. They value reading (yes, reading – it will ALWAYS be tied to the idea of libraries and librarians) and they like asking questions. They are, in a sense, our people. They like us and we like them. They ARE us and we are them. But sadly (or perhaps, it’s a good thing in the larger picture of the universe) they (we) are the minority.

I think there is something to be said for and recognized in the quotes from this historical perspective (meaning, the above-referenced article). Our own history does reflect our parent institutions. It reflects our society. Education, learning, health care, medical research – these are all things that have ebbed and flowed in their importance throughout history. If you think about it, we may give a lot of lip service to these things as a society, but are they truly the heart of what we’re about in medical education and health care? I wonder. There’s a bottom line – in education, in research, and in health care – and I think we all know what that bottom line is. It is clearly reflected in many of the decisions that are made today, and ultimately the value that we place upon things in our society.

I’ve no idea on how to counter this in a large sense. Like others, the personal thanks that I regularly receive from a portion of students and researchers do make me feel better about the work I do. They make me feel like I make some small difference. But like others in this string of comments, too, I wish they happened more and reflected more a different set of values displayed by our institutions, hospitals and society at large. Something other than the literal bottom line.


[Weiner, S.G. (2005) The History of Academic Libraries in the United States: A Review of the Literature. Library Philosophy and Practice 7(2). Available online.]